This article is part two of a two part series on file management for photographers. In part one, I talked about what I think is the most important aspect of file management, and actually one of the most crucial – though generally overlooked – aspects of a digital photographic workflow: Data Protection.
If you're interested in a visualization of my system of organizing and managing my image library, you can check out a short video tutorial of my workflow at the bottom of this article.
Having covered what a good data protection system can do for you, and how to properly set one up, we're going to move on to how to organize our photos so that we can tag, label, sort, and group our images. Having our photos organized in such a way makes it easy to find individual photos or groups of photos within a library consisting of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of images.
There are many software solutions on the market, most of which are available for both Mac and PC users to help you organize your image library. My favourite is Adobe Lightroom, which is more generally thought of as an editing program, however I think it is extremely underrated as an organizational tool by those new to the software. I'll go further into the specifics of using Lightroom to manage your photos later on, but first I want to look at some strategies you can employ without any software, that can help bring some organization to your library.
Organizing folder structure is something that anyone on any system can – and should - do without any software solutions that can make dealing with your image library a lot easier. When setting up your folder structure, it's good to have an overall strategy in mind, a template so that you know where to put new sub folders when the need arises. It's also a good idea to commit to a plan early, as reorganizing your files after the fact can be a huge pain.
Lightroom and other software organization systems handle some of your folder structure management for you, but you'll want to know how everything is set up regardless. There are a few common methods photographers use to structure their image folders, but you should feel free to experiment and organize in a way that makes sense to you. That said, the most common folder structures I see photographers using are based on either:
A combination of the above
Regardless of which system you use, I strongly encourage you to name each of your folders something unique that makes sense to you. It's pretty much impossible to navigate a library of photos organized into folders titled only with their import date...
Personally I use a combination of the above categories when naming and structuring my folders. On my primary photography and design hard drive I store all of my images in a master folder called [PHOTOS]. Inside that folder I sort my photos down into different categories based on date (year and month), subject (wildlife, nature, etc), client photos, travel photos, and a couple other lesser used categories. Many of these folders have multiple folders inside of them as well. Here's an example of what my folder structure looks like.
--> [Bouldering Nationals]
--> [Lighthouse Park]
All of my February photos are placed in either the [Bouldering Nationals] folder, or in the [Lighthouse Park] folder, making it easy to locate specific photos from one of the shoots without having to sift through my entire library, or even just the photos taken in the month of February. You can be as specific or as broad with your folder structure as you want, although I don't recommend getting into too much more detail than what I've demonstrated above. If you get into too many layers of folders it becomes a hassle to navigate through them all every time you try to get to an image. Generally a good rule of thumb is that when you have too many photos in a folder to easily find and pick out individuals, you should break it down further into distinct subjects, locations, dates, or some other category that makes sense to you.
An Exception To My Date Based System
I've found that when travelling, it becomes harder to fit my travel photos into my existing date/location based structure. Often trips span across months or even years, forcing me to either split the photos up to conform to the date based folder system, or break away from the system. For cases like these I created a [Travel] subfolder under my main [PHOTOS], and then break down further into broad locations, and then more specific locations. Here's another example.
--> [01 Slovenia]
--> [02 Croatia]
--> [03 Bosnia & Herzegovina]
--> [04 Montenegro]
Keep in mind that folders are often sorted - both in Lightroom and otherwise – alphabetically. In situations like the above structure, I wanted to name the folders with their location, but still have the folders arranged chronologically, hence the numbers in front of the country names starting with Slovenia, the first country I visted in the region.
One note about working with folder structures in Lightroom before we move on, is that if there's ever a time you want to move images from folder to folder, rename folders, move folders, create new folders, etc, make sure you do so inside of Lightroom. If you perform these tasks within the Finder or My Computer, Lightroom will be unable to find your images and you will have to point LR to the new folder location for each image or folder whose location has been changed.
Organizing Further In Lightroom
Once you've got your folder structure organized, it's possible to drill down further inside of Lightroom to impart even more order to your library!
The most common organizational tools I use in Lightroom are:
Rating (0-5 Stars)
Tagging with text
Collections, including Smart Collections
I'll give you a quick overview of each sorting tool and how I personally use each to organize my library.
This system is simple enough, when photos are initially imported into your Lightroom library they carry a 0 star rating. You can assign individual or groups of photos a new rating from 1 – 5 stars by either selecting the photo and then clicking on the number of stars you wish to rate it while in Loupe View, or you can simply select the image(s) in either the Grid, Develop,or Loupe modules and hit any of 1 through 5 on your keyboard to rate the images that way.
I use the rating system to indicate which phase of my editing process a certain image is in. When I first import my images I will immediately go through and delete everything that I know I don't want to keep. At this point I select all the remaining images from the current import and assign them a 1-star rating so I know that I have already done the initial cull if some time passes before I get back to them.
The next step for me is to go through the images again and pick out the images that jump out at me as worthy of processing, these I will rate with a 3-star rating. Once this is done I will go through the 3-star photos and pick out the very best for immediate processing and rate them 4-stars. Once I am completely finished processing an image I will rate it 5-stars so that I know it is ready for print or to be posted online.
In the Library Module you can choose to sort based on the exact rating, or alternatively include photos rated less than or equal to, or greater than or equal to.
2. Colour Labelling
Another visual method of sorting and classifying your images is through the use of applying colour labels. Truth be told this is a feature I don't employ as much as the other sorting functions of Lightroom, but I'm looking for new ways to start incorporating it into my workflow. I'd love to hear how you use colour labels in your organization to get some ideas.
Once again, newly imported images are unlabelled, and you are then able to apply one of the five colour labels, red, yellow, green, blue, or purple. In my current workflow I predominantly use the red label for images that have since been edited in an external application such as Photoshop or Aurora HDR, and are therefor not the most up-to-date version of the image. I also use the yellow label for images such as skies or textures, images I don't plan to edit or sort further and just want to keep on hand for use in conjunction with other projects. I used to use the blue label to signify my top images, but I have since moved on to putting these images into collections which I'll cover shortly.
My only other use for colour labels is marking images so that I can easily pick out specific images within the grid view. I know some photographers will label all their dedicated stock images one colour, their fine art images another and so on. There are a lot ways to use the labels and it's best to come up with a system that works for you specifically.
3. Tagging With Text
Tagging with text is in my opinion one of the most useful features in Lightroom, and yet one of it's least utilized by beginners to the program. I understand why, as going through your library tagging images with text identifiers isn't necessarily fun. Personally, when I'm editing I tend to get into a visual state of mind and rhythm, where after finishing one image, I want to immediately move on to the next, staying “in the zone”. I have to switch mindsets a little bit to add in specific keywords for each image and often forget, having to go through again and update the keywords later.
The flip side however that this is probably the easiest way to find individual photos without having to navigate through your folders. In the grid view you can select the Text library filter near the top of the screen and type in specific search terms. Lightroom will then bring up all of the images you've tagged with those terms. This can make it extremely easy to find specific people, places, subjects, and more, which is really, really, really, useful later on when you're trying to find an image.
While this sorting feature is incredibly useful, it does take some discipline and dedication in tagging your photos while editing and sorting or it's utility is hamstrung. You can choose to apply specific keywords on import, or apply specific keys to a selection of photos as well.
Until recently I applied some keywords such as my name, my company name, and the year on import but have recently decided to add those later when elaborating the keyword tags during editing. The reason behind this decision is that Lightroom has a smart collection (we'll get there in a minute) that automatically compiles all of your images that have no keywords. This is a handy way to identify images you missed filling out keywords for and remedy them. My problem was that all of my images had keywords thanks to the automatic keywords added on import, so to find out which images I had forgotten to tag would require me to go through my library searching for them. Hence, I now leave the keyword section blank until the editing process.
4. Collections & Smart Collections
The last of my personal most used sorting functions in Lightroom is the collections and smart collections feature. This is another feature that is often ignored or not understood by newcomers to the program, but once you understand how collections work, they can be hugely advantageous.
Collections basically work like folders that exist only in Lightroom, and are not replicated on your hard drive. Any changes to the image location and folder structure you make within Lightroom will replicate the change on your hard drive. With collections however, you can group images together in a collection in Lightroom so that no changes are made to the original file or location.
You can make as many collections as you like and also create new collections inside existing collection sets. For example I have a collection set for the images that appear on my website, and then numerous sub-collections for each of the various pages of my website inside that set. By working this way, i don't need to duplicate files on my hard drive by copying the images from their original location to a new [Website] folder, and can easily make batch adjustments to this set of photos, maybe I want a certain watermark applied for the website versions for instance.
The second, more confusing aspect of collections is smart collections. These are collections like the ones explained above, except instead of dragging and dropping images into the collection, photos are automatically assigned to smart collections based on a set of parameters that you control.
You can choose any number of parameters that an image must meet to be included in the smart collection, some of which include rating, colour label, text, date, source, file name, location, and many, many more.
Using smart collections can be confusing when you first get started, but the more comfortable you become creating and modifying them, the more they can do for you. Lightroom comes with some pre-made smart collections including Coloured Red, Five Stars, Past Month, Recently Modified, Video Files, and Without Keywords. You can browse through these, edit their parameters and see how changing the qualifiers affects which images are included in the collection to begin your understanding of their function.
Combining Sort Functions
When looking for specific images within your library, you can use any of the above sort functions - plus any of the other various sort functions that may or may not be useful to you – individually, or in conjunction with one another. This means you can filter for 4-star, blue labeled images. Or images with the keyword: Mountain, 3-star or greater, red labeled. You could even search for flagged, 5-star, purple labeled, virtual copies, taken on October 15th 2014, from a Nikon D7100, 18-200mm lens if you wanted to get that specific. You can choose to apply any or all of these filters to your entire library, or within a specific folder, collection, or smart collection as well. Getting a handle on the library filters is essential in navigating your image library once you begin to accrue years worth of images.
I know this is a lot of information, but I hope that it's been some use to you and helps you apply some organization to your library, whether you use Lightroom or not. I really find it useful - if not necessary - to have a defined plan or system in mind for my library, even writing it down above your computer if necessary, so that you know which labels apply to what, where new folders should be created, etc. Having a top down structural plan goes a long way to ensuring organization at all levels of your workflow.
Check out the video tutorial below for a brief visualization of how I set up my folder structure on my hard drive, and sort and organize my images in Lightroom.
I'd love to hear whats working for you in terms of organization, how you use specific sorting functions, what your folder structure looks like and so on. I'm always looking to simplify and improve my own workflow, so if you know of something that may be useful, let me know!
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